There is Money in Coworking

WeWork Creators Awards

There is money in coworking…

That was my thought upon entering the vast Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Located within view of the Washington Monument, this building with its Doric columns is such a classic of the DC genre that it has filled in as the Capitol in TV shows such as Veep and The West Wing.

Inside, you walk though a 20-foot tall arch and onto the marble floor of the lobby, where I was immediately served a drink, a delicious concoction of grapefruit juice and tequila. Black-clad waiters approached with bite-sized empanadas and spring rolls.

I was at the WeWork Creator Awards. The coworking company has committed over $20 million to empower creators around the world. Applicants pitch their ideas for grants to incubate, launch and scale their businesses. I went because techies always have the best parties.

Inside the auditorium, with its marble columns stretching upwards and a DJ playing, attendees got what was described as the full WeWork experience: educational workshops, job fairs, pop-up markets, live entertainment, and plenty of inspiration.

And plenty of drinks, as this crowd of PR people, entrepreneurs, WeWork members and creative types (like me), mingled and purchased items from local vendors. Entering the hall, I was handed a $50 chit to buy stuff which I used on a couple of t-shirts from No Kings Collective.

Half-drunk on tequila, with a bag full of free swag, it hit me: there is money in coworking. We’re talking 1999 dotcom money or SXSW excess, both of which I witnessed as a web person working on the content side. The WeWork party, with its open bar and air of excitement, reminded me of SXSW parties in Austin, circa 2008, when social media was on the rise. This time, the new new thing is coworking, which are shared workplaces where you can rent a desk or an office on a monthly plan.

I talked to a young woman from another coworking company who said WeWork was a billion-dollar company, which stunned me. How could renting office space be so profitable?

But her figure was wrong. WeWork is actually a $16 billion dollar company! Investors are betting big that coworking is the future.

Having spent far too much time in the beige cubicles of government offices, I see the attraction of coworking. A few weeks earlier, I visited WeWork White House, which looks like a Hollywood set designer’s idea of a workplace rather than the Office Space environments that are norm in America. It’s a big, beautiful, bright space, set across two floors, including a coffee bar and a roofdeck with a view of monumental DC. A dream office, in other words.

WeWork White House - Lobby

I thought coworking was just for freelancers. It’s also for small nonprofits and companies wishing to provide flexibility to their employees. At the WeWork White House, I met a woman working for an international organization with headquarters overseas, as well as a small business offering babysitting services. They had an office set up to do headshots for babysitters.

It was a happy place. And no wonder. With more control over their environment and a sense of community from working in a hive of creative folks, coworkers derive a stronger sense of meaning than cubicle-dwellers.

But what’s the attraction for business? Setting up an office is hard. A friend of mine looked for more than a year to find space for his young company. And once finding the space, had to retrofit it to make it ADA-compliant and fight with the local telecom for months just to get online.

In contrast, a coworking space offers you the ability to just move in and get to work. The WeWork White House is ideal for companies that want a Washington presence without the hassle of renting real estate in DC.

It’s big business. More than a million people will cowork this year, according to a survey by Deskman. By the end of the year, around 14,000 coworking spaces will be in operation worldwide.

Coworking is more than just shared office space. It’s a worldwide movement away from boring cubicles and into more flexible and fun space led by companies seeking to save money and freelancers searching for a sense of community.

There is money in coworking, as WeWork demonstrates. It’s the future – hopefully – for all of us who seek creative space and support to do our best work.

OUTBOX: The Future of Work?

Think outside the office. Opening day for OUTBOX, a pop-up outside office in Silver Spring. #dtss #md #merrland

I’ve got one word for you: BOXES. Whether it’s a tiny house or a new transit van, the future is modular. It’s four walls and temporary, brought to you when and where you need it.

That’s the thought behind OUTBOX, temporary outdoor office space constructed in downtown Silver Spring. Created by students at Montgomery College, they describe it as:

OUTBOX is an innovative workspace offering on-the-go professionals a perfect spot to escape the office this season. Work, ideate and create in the fresh air.

student designers at OUTBOX

Beats the hell out of my windowless, gubment-issued cubicle so I was dying to check it out. OUTBOX is as described, an open-air, covered space with chairs, tables and wifi.

Cool, but probably not necessary in downtown Silver Spring, where there must a dozen places you can work in, from coffee shops to the public library. I’d rather go to Peet’s.

Where this would be ideal, however, are places far from city centers where wifi is ubiquitous. When I was traveling out west last year, I would’ve loved OUTBOX. It would be perfect for a Utah rest stop in the middle of nowhere, allowing travelers a chance to check their email, look up hotels and reconnect to the world.

Meeting in a box. Office workers enjoy a sojourn outside the office in OUTBOX, a Silver Spring pop-up #dtss #merrland #md #igdc

OUTBOX would also be great at places where you need temporary workspace, like a convention or a concert. It would make a great press room for reporters, social media mavens and photographers covering such events.

Cheap, flexible workspaces are the future. Investing in massive buildings filled with white-collar workers is a waste of money. Why pay for half-empty desks? Here’s to a better alternative, one that employees might enjoy more: the box! It might not be OUTBOX but we’re all going to be working and living in such places pretty soon.

 

Lessons from a Webby-Winning Web Site

I was excited to learn that The Nature Conservancy won a Webby for their web site, nature.org. They beat out the competition (which included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!) in the category of Charitable Organizations Nonprofit.

I worked on nature.org from 2003-2005 as a Web Producer. I think it’s a great site though, of course, I’m hopelessly biased 😉

Nature.org was recently redesigned but it follows a core set of design principles that I think helped it win the Webby. If you look at past screenshots of the site, these principles have been pretty consistent over the years. They include:

  • Excellent use of white space. Text on the home page is given room to breathe, making it easier for people to scan down the page and absorb what’s on it.
  • Strong photography. What sells nature? Great photos of nature. The photos selected for the site are more than just pretty pictures, they tell a story.
  • A consistent color palette. Using the same set of well-matched colors across the site provides a consistent experience, one that underscores that this is a professional, well-designed site.
  • Third-party validation. The home page features endorsements from the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.
  • Concise copywriting. Many nonprofit web site are either hopelessly wordy or incredibly vague. In a limited amount of space, nature.org manages to communicate what the organization is about and how you can get involved.

Note how simple this is. Readers aren’t overwhelmed by flash animations or crowded blocks of content. This simplicity is a design choice that has paid dividends for The Nature Conservancy.

Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?

I’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It’s a brilliant book on the information revolution that we’re going through. He believes that this revolution is as momentous as the development of the printing press, which triggered the Reformation and religious wars. The rise of amateurs and the expansion of consumer choice has meant the end of seemingly unassailable institutions like newspapers.

Seeing how the world is rushing to adapt to the web, I had a practical question. Why doesn’t the government use the web to more efficiently accomplish its work? For example: Continue reading “Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?”

10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment

Here are some more notes from SXSW Interactive.

I attended a session called, “10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment.”  Bryan Mason and Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path interviewed stage managers and conductors on how you keep a group creative and productive.  I think both roles are very similar to what web producers and site managers do.  We often have to work with prickly creative types, with specialized skills, who we need to be inspired and working in the same direction.  Web sites, like orchestras or stage plays, are, by their very nature, collaborative environments.

Several web people I know actually work in the theater or film (like me) or music, as if they’re drawn to creative group activities even when they’re outside of the office.  There’s a psychological lesson in there somewhere…

At the SXSW Interactive session, Bryan and Sarah (a former musician) introduced us to ten techniques used by creative management professionals to get great work from a wide range of employees.

1. Cross-train entire team – teaches empathy, possibility.  In the avante-garde theater they studied, everyone got to write and act.
2. Rotate creative leadership – provides ownership.
3. Actively turn the corner – there will come a time when you must put the bad ideas away and start on production.  The theater did this by taking a smoke break between the brainstormin session and the actual planning of the play.
4. Know your roles – stay in your lane.
5. Practice as a group.  This is why it’s vital that orchestras practice together.
6. Make your mission explicit to the whole team.
7. Kill your darlings (the ideas that are good but don’t fit).  Avenue Q, the Broadway musical, had lots of songs that didn’t serve the story.  They were ditched.
8. Leadership is service.
9. Do projects around group’s ideas.
10. Remember your audience.  Avenue Q was written in coffee shops, around the type of people who would be the audience for the musical.

Bonus Tip 11. Celebrate failure… with an afterparty!

The Artisan Economy

A new study by Intuit predicts that the past will become the future. We’re heading into the Age of the Artisan. The press release has a great lede:

Artisans, historically defined as skilled craftsmen who fashioned goods by hand, will re-emerge as an influential force in the coming decade.

Now, we’re not talking about people making crafts by hand in some log cabin. The New Artisan is likely to be a web developer, writer, photographer, designer, marketing consultant or other independent professional. Powered by social networking tools and an always-on net, they’ll be able to work anywhere, for anyone.

The tools are getting easier and easier for new artisans, lowering the barriers to their work and eliminating many of the gatekeepers that once kept them from the market. In addition to the machine of democratization that is the internet, today’s artisan has a wealth of tools available to them:

  • Writers can easily self-publish their books on Lulu and sell them worldwide.
  • Photographers can use Flickr to market themselves and sell the stock photography through istock.
  • Designers can market their creations on CafePress, without having to keep any merchandise on hand.
  • Marketing professionals can find clients on LinkedIn
  • And teams of people can collaborate using Backpack and Google Docs.

While there’s a certain amount of hyperbole in this study, particularly in its prediction of the end of the Industrial Revolution, this is an idea that largely rings true. There’s no reason for large groups of people to travel by carbon-spewing vehicles to sprawling office parks where they’ll occupy beige cubes for giant corporations as they put in eight hours a day.

That’s the Cubicle Economy, where you’re judged not necessarily by the quality of your work but, often, by less concrete measures, like whether you’re a “team player” or your facility at office politics. Or, sometimes, by a very concrete measure – the “face time” you put in the office.

I’ve worked for large organizations most of my career. In all cases, creative people (like myself) have challenges in adapting to to the Cubicle Economy. If you’re creative, you want to create, whether it’s a brochure, a web site or a party. You want a tangible product. Yet, so much effort in the Cubicle Economy is spent around process – meetings, timesheets, required briefings, politics, showing up on time. Is it any wonder that creative people have problems in the Cubicle Economy?

At the beginning of my career, as I transitioned from school to the Cubicle Economy, I felt hopelessly restless and bored. Was the problem with me? Maybe I had ADD.

Working on web sites saved me from being driven crazy by the Cubicle Economy. Having a concrete thing to work on, to update, a creation that was constantly changing but was reaching real people – that was something I could point at, a creation that made the rigors of the Cubicle Economy worthwhile.

The Artisan Economy would not only be a more efficient way to run a business, it would be friendlier to human needs and more conducive to creative work. I, and millions of other members of the Cubicle Economy, would welcome it.